From selfish interests spring accomplishments benefiting society at-large.

Last October I used this space to write “Reckoning Time For Trade Associations,” which discussed the decline of trade associations not only in this industry but throughout the business world. Although some groups do better than others in staying relevant, cultural and technological changes in our society have made trade associations less important than they used to be in the business and social lives of their members.

And that’s too bad, because an inclusive and well-run trade association has the potential to make a monumental impact not only on the fortunes of its membership, but to the greater good of society at-large. This thought occurred to me while reading a history of my hometown Plumbing Contractors Association of Chicago and Cook County (Chicago PCA).

Last month we ran a brief news story about the Chicago PCA’s celebration of its 125th anniversary. The article was rushed into print amid a tight deadline and limited space, so in case you missed it, I’ll repeat some of the notable historical achievements of this organization.

  • Way back in 1884, founders of what became the Chicago PCA conceived the modern system of apprenticeship, whereby apprentices became indentured to the trade rather than specific employers. Training became systematic instead of haphazard.

  • Its efforts helped give Chicago one of the world’s safest supplies of drinking water. Though 27 million visitors came to the 1893 Columbian Exposition world’s fair, not a single case of typhoid was reported - an unheard of accomplishment for its time. By 1920, Chicago had the lowest typhoid rate of our nation’s 20 largest cities.

  • Chicago PCA was represented on a special committee that developed the 1924 Hoover Code, establishing 20 basic principles for DWV design and installation. Members also were instrumental in the movement toward standardization of plumbing materials.

  • Chicago PCA helped bring about tougher plumbing licensing laws during the 1930s after a fatal breakout of amoebic dysentery at Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair was traced to a hotel cross-connection.

    The Chicago PCA is joined by many PHCC and MCAA affiliates around the country that have made similar historical contributions to the well-being of their industry and local communities. Ironically, all this came about as an outgrowth of narrow-minded protectionism.

    The forefathers of both the PHCC and MCAA federations banded together mainly to collectively boycott manufacturers and suppliers that sold to anyone except members of the 19th century plumbing or heating trades. Such blatant trade restraint ran rampant in the American business world back then, which led to a series of antitrust laws starting with the 1890 Sherman Act. It took awhile for industry VIPs to adapt to the new rules, and a few served jail time in the early 20th century for antitrust violations.

    Let’s not judge those folks by today’s standards. Many behaviors that were commonplace back then are beyond the pale now. What’s more important is that their ignoble motives morphed into the promotion of public policies that have saved countless lives and led to general prosperity over time.

    A fascinating passage in the Chicago PCA historical book recalls the early debate over materials standardization spearheaded by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in the post-WWI era. Some plumbers argued against material standards, fearing standardized products would diminish their work. But the voices of progress won out and our industry’s national associations played major roles in plumbing and heating standardization.

    Echoes of that debate can be heard in today’s code hearings over acceptable products. Sometimes the battles last longer than they should, but when looked at from the historical perspective, thorough debates over materials and installation methodology ultimately benefit both the trade and the public.

    Contractor trade associations encompass regional diversity and varied types of businesses with more diffuse economic interests than, say, product manufacturers and labor unions. That’s why their participation in code development is invaluable. Erosion of trade association support will leave decisions of importance on material issues and everything else concentrated in persons representing more parochial interests.

    Many trade associations are hurting because they don’t adequately satisfy the “what’s in it for me?” criteria of prospective members. Plumbing and heating contractors ought to do some soul-searching and ask, “What can I do for my industry - and what’s the best vehicle for getting things done?” 

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